Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Principles

By Anonymous

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Part 1, Lines 250 - 490
The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

"See, Gawain, that you carry out your promise exactly,
And search for me truly, sir, until I am found,
As you have sworn in the hall in the hearing of these knights."
(448 - 450)

The Green Knight reminds Gawain of his knightly duty to keep his promise. The fact that Gawain has sworn to do this in the hearing of all the other knights means that his reputation will be damaged if he fails to carry it out - it’s a matter of knightly honor.

Sir Gawain

"I am the weakest [of your knight], I know, and the dullest-minded,
So my death would be the least loss, if truth should be told;
Only because you are my uncle am I to be praised,
No virtue I know in myself but your blood."
(354 - 357)

The idea that a person’s virtue might reside in their blood was a medieval one that justified systems of familial succession. It’s unclear if the modesty Gawain displays throughout the poem - calling himself the "least" of Arthur’s knights when he’s known as the best - is a false one or just another part of his virtue.

Part 2, Lines 491 - 690

The fifth group of five the man respected, I hear,
Was generosity and love of fellow-men above all;
His purity and courtesy were never lacking,
And surpassing the other, compassion: these noble five
Were more deeply implanted in that knight than any other.
(651 - 655)

It’s easier to understand the difference between some of Gawain’s virtues by looking at the Middle English: love of fellow-men is "felaghschyp," which refers to something more like dedicated friendship than love. Purity is "clannes," which usually refers to chastity. Compassion is called "pité" in the Middle English. This virtue, greater than any other, is probably Christian charity, the love of others and God before oneself.

Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,
Each one linked to the others in an endless design,
Based upon five points that was never unfinished,
Not uniting in one line nor separating either
Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,
No matter where the line began or ran to an end.
(656 - 661)

The pentangle’s design, with each line transitioning seemingly endlessly into another, emphasizes the way that the five virtues are similarly interrelated, each one depending upon the other. Similarly, Gawain’s ability to maintain his five virtues depends a lot on his devotion to Christ and Mary, two other ‘sides’ of his virtue-pentangle.

Therefore [the pentangle] suits this knight and his shining arms,
For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues
(631 - 635)

The pentangle Gawain has painted on the front of his shield represents his characteristics in five areas, as the following lines go on to detail: the perfection of his five senses, the dexterity of his five fingers, his devotion to the five wounds of Christ, his focus on the five joys Mary had in Christ, and his devotion to five virtues.

Part 2, Lines 842 - 1045

Each knight whispered to his companion,
"Now we shall enjoy seeing displays of good manners,
And the irreproachable terms of noble speech;
The art of conversation we can learn unasked,
Since we have taken in the source of good breeding."   
(915 - 919)

In addition to being a paragon of religious virtues, Gawain is a master of more secular virtue like the art of good manners, what in medieval romance was known as "courtoisie." The art of conversation depended upon providing delight to one’s companions with talk of matters entertaining but not so serious as to put a damper on the fun. For this reason the poem constantly refers to all the laughter and delight that occurs as Gawain converses with his hosts.

In knowledge of fine manners
This man has expertise;
I think that those who hear him,
Will learn what love-talk is.
(924 - 927)

As part of Gawain’s knowledge of "courtoisie," he has expertise in love-talk, meaning that he knows how to talk to a lady so as to delight her.

Sir Gawain

"I am at your commandment to act on your bidding,
As I am duty bound to in everything, large or small,
    by right."
(1039 - 1041)

Gawain puts himself at the disposal of his host in everything, something which both of his codes of conduct - courtoisie, and chivalry - require him to do. Since he has accepted the hospitality of Lord Bertilak, in courtesy he owes him a debt of gratitude as a guest. And since Lord Bertilak outranks Gawain, he becomes a substitute liege lord of sorts in Arthur’s absence, to whom he owes the same obedience and loyalty.

Part 2, Lines 1046 - 1125
Sir Gawain

"A verbal agreement was settled between us
To meet that man at that place, should I be alive,
And before that New Year little time now remains;
And I would face that man, if God would allow me,
More gladly, by God’s son, than come by great wealth."
(1060 - 1064)

Gawain’s eagerness to make his appointment with the Green Knight is quite striking. How often do you hear someone say that they’d much rather meet their likely murderer than strike it rich? This passage just goes to show how seriously Gawain takes his knightly honor.

Part 3, Lines 1126 - 1318
Lady Bertilak

"So good a knight as Gawain as rightly reputed,
In whom courtesy is so completely embodied,
Could not easily have spent so much time with a lady
Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness,
By some hint or suggestion at the end of a remark."
(1296 - 1301)

The lady’s implication here is that Gawain would be breaking the rules of courtesy not to seek a kiss from a lady who has asked for it with her flirtatious manner. Gawain is really in a bind now, because to reject the lady’s advance so overtly would certainly break the rules of courtesy, while to become romantically involved with her would be to betray Lord Bertilak and break the code of knightly conduct.

Part 3, Lines 1690 - 1892

[Gawain] approached a priest privately, and besought him there
To hear his confession and instruct him more clearly
How his soul could be saved when he leaves this world.
There he confessed himself honestly and admitted his sins,
Both the great and the small, and forgiveness begs,
And calls on the priest for absolution.
And the priest absolved him completely, and made him as clean
As if the Judgment were appointed for the next day.
(1877 - 1882)

Gawain displays his great piety by seeking forgiveness and absolution for his sins at what he thinks is likely to be his last day on earth. This passage raises an interesting question, however: does Gawain confess that he plans to withhold the girdle from Bertilak, breaking the terms of the agreement? If he omits this, can he be forgiven? Is it ok to confess a sin you plan to commit, but haven’t yet? And is this withholding of the girdle even a sin, or is it just a breach of knightly conduct?

Part 3, Lines 1893 - 1997
The Green Knight / Lord Bertilak

"Everything I ever promised you I shall readily give."

This is Lord Bertilak’s response to Gawain’s request for a man to lead him to the Green Chapel. It becomes ironic in light of the ending, when we learn that Sir Bertilak is also the Green Knight. Lord Bertilak might also be referring to his promise to return the stroke Gawain gave him in Arthur’s court one year ago.

Part 4, Lines 2212 - 2477
Sir Gawain

The first words that the knight uttered there
Were, "A curse upon cowardice and covetousness!
You breed boorishness and vice that ruin virtue.
[.  .  .]
For fear of your blow taught me cowardice,
To give way to covetousness, be false to my nature,
The generosity and fidelity expected of knights.
Now I am false and unworthy, and have always dreaded
Treachery and deceit: may misfortune and grief
    befall both!"
(2374 - 2376, 2379 - 2384)

Gawain is disappointed in himself, and he identifies fear as the thing that caused him to covet, or want to keep, the green girdle. This covetousness, in turn, caused him to break the terms of his agreement with Bertilak, proving himself dishonest. Gawain identifies these vices as alien to his nature, suggesting that he has much higher expectations of himself than even an ethic like Christianity, which views sin as an inevitable part of a man’s character. In fact, part of the lesson that Gawain must take away from his encounter is that he is an imperfect being, as prone to failure as anyone else.

Part 4, Lines 2479 - 2530

"See, my lord,"  said the man, and held up the girdle,
"This belt caused the scar that I bear on my neck;
This is the injury and damage that I have suffered
For the cowardice and covetousness that seized me there;
This is the token of the dishonesty I was caught committing,
And now I must wear it as long as I live.
For a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it,
For where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted."
(2505 - 2512)

The withheld girdle caused Bertilak’s axe to break Gawain’s flesh just as Gawain’s covetousness for it caused his dishonesty in the exchange of winnings. Gawain opts to wear it forever as a symbol of the deep-rootedness of misdeeds. Christianity believes that sins may be absolved and forgiven, but Gawain appears to have a much more pessimistic outlook, one that likely reflects his concern with the effect of a misdeed upon his honor and reputation as much as on his soul.

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